In the United States alone, the self-help industry; books, seminars, infomercials, personal coaches, audio and video products, was an $11 Billion industry in 2013. This according to Katheryn Shultz from an article in in New York Magazine from January 6th of this year.
(New York Magazine (New York Media, LLC). ISSN 0028-7369.)
Listen to how Ms. Shultz describes the hunger for “self-help” in her article: “In The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden observed that we human beings never become something without pretending to be it first. The corollary is more prosaic but, regrettably, at least as true: We humans never become most of the things we pretend we will someday be. Nevertheless, last Monday, you and I and several billion other incorrigible optimists raised our glasses and toasted all the ways we will be different in 2013.
It’s easy to understand why we want to be different. We are twenty pounds overweight; we are $20,000 in debt;… What’s harder to understand is why transforming ourselves is so difficult. Changing other people is notoriously hard; the prevailing wisdom on that one is Don’t hold your breath. But it’s not obvious why changing oneself should present any difficulty at all. And yet, demonstrably, it does.”
She goes on to make the astute observation that we can’t achieve “self-help” if we can’t even figure out what a “self” is!
This struggle with changing ourselves is nothing new. St. Paul had this to say about his own internal war in Romans 7:18-19 “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
The dangers of feeling stuck in this inescapable rut is always one of our main sources of paralyzing and consistent inconsistency! We know it has to stop, but we don’t stop.
However (and this is why it’s called “Good News”), we are not without hope. What looks impossible to us is possible with God.
Listen to our Epistle Lesson this morning: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:13-20
What does this laundry list of “desires of the flesh” all have in common? They are all manifestations of the blindness to our own self-centeredness. The immediate gratification of my desires taking mastery of my choices and my life.
St. Paul insists we are “called to freedom” from this selfish bondage, but he goes on to equally insist this freedom will not be achieved by mere rule-keeping, but a transformed self. The “desires of the Spirit” must become the masters of my life. That can’t and won’t happen until I prioritize the desires of the Spirit over the temporary desires of the flesh.
The Orthodox Christian lifestyle is the perfect path to this freedom. The wisdom of the Church infused with the “mind of Christ” and walking “in the Spirit” invites me to embrace the path of not improving myself, but allowing myself to be transformed.
The time-tested and lived out proof in the lives of the saints show me The Way. It begins with learning how to repent. And this is so much more than simply being regretful of wrong actions. No, repentance, and learning how to repent, is actually my life’s work. St. Isaac the Syrian said “”Why do you increase your bonds? Take hold of your life before your light grows dark and you seek help and do not find it. This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.” He goes on to say in another place: “Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.”
Today, my dearest, pray for me that I will learn how to authentically repent. In doing so, I will discover my true self, and escape from this awful caricature that so easily passes himself off as the real me. Pray that I will not so much seek “self-help” as humility and goodness. Pray that I don’t confuse “self-condemnation” for humility. But that I will discover and embrace the twin, eternal, truths of my honest confession of my own faults AND the ever hopeful reality that God loves me more than I, myself, knows how to love.
As you struggle today, learn the freedom of repentance. Enter fully into the life of the Church Whose sole purpose is to encourage, enhance, and educate you on how to repent. And forgive everyone you meet today including yourself.
What’s stopping you?